Freedom in the Spirit OR Declaration of Inter-dependence

Text: Galatians 5:1,13-26

This week our nation celebrates its birthday.  There’s fireworks, there’s food, there’s commentary on where we’re at as a country, now 243 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Freedom is a big word for us, from a big idea.  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

That’s worked out pretty well for white, male, property owners.  The struggle for equal freedoms and opportunities is a major part of the history of our country.

Also this week is the biennial national convention of Mennonite Church USA – in Kansas City this year – in which we exercise our collective freedom-to-be-frugal by having the event during one of the cheapest convention weeks of the year.  But it’s still not cheap.  This year we’ll send 13 people to convention, with strong financial support from the congregation.  Thank you.

Many, many years ago – almost 2000 – the Apostle Paul had freedom on his mind.  It’s a central theme in his epistle, which is a fancy name for a letter, to the Galatians.

The letter is actually addressed to the “churches of Galatia,” plural.  Nobody’s quite sure how many churches this included or even where they were located.

The most common understanding of what’s going on behind this letter goes something like this:  In his missionary travels, the Apostle Paul helped found a group of small congregations of the Galatians.  They were primarily Gentiles, meaning they weren’t Jews, meaning they had never followed Jewish practices like male circumcision and Sabbath keeping and dietary guidelines.  They’d been pagans who had joined with everybody else in honoring the Roman imperial gods.

But now they’re Christians.

Although the early Christians weren’t even called Christians yet.  They were just an emergent group within the many Judaisms of the time.  And most of the early Jesus followers – Paul among them – still identified as Jews.

After Paul initiates these little worshiping communities, some other apostles come through and tell the Galatians – Hey, if you’re going to be a part of this Jewish movement that recognizes Jesus as Messiah – like us – you’ve got to undergo the basic mark of Jewish identity – male circumcision, the outward sign of being a part of the people of God ever since the days of Abraham.

And that becomes a major point of contention within this emergent Jesus-inspired faith.  Church controversy is nothing new.

It’s not exactly parallel, but a similar kind of question in our time might be Do people of other faiths need to become Christian in order to be a part of the people of God?  I don’t think I even agree with how that question is set up, but you can start to imagine how there could be some heated debate around this these days.  It’s probably best this will not be a topic delegates with be voting on at the Kansas City Mennonite convention next week.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is his literary counter-punch to those other apostles.  His argument isn’t so much that male circumcision is a bad thing, it’s just not necessary for these Gentiles, and comes with a host of other obligations Paul sees as non-essential to faith in the God Jesus illuminated.  Circumcision obligates one to the law, and that is a load that Gentiles need not bear.  Paul promotes a gospel of freedom – there’s that key word.  “It is for freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul writes.  Freedom guided by the Holy Spirit, whose law is love.

Just in case there’s any doubt about Paul’s antagonism toward the pro-circumcision crowd, he puts out this doozy right before our reading began.  Regarding those outsiders who came through and promoted circumcision he says, “I wish they would go all the way and castrate themselves.”  To paraphrase: Hey guys, while you’re down there with the knife why don’t you go ahead and just keep cutting –  on yourself. BOOM.

Who says Paul is dry reading?  This is high drama folks.

A more recent angle on what’s going on with this letter connects these Galatians with the people of Gaul, Celtic folks, who had migrated east across to the Roman empire.  These Gauls were the vanquished, those barbarians who had fought against Rome all those centuries prior and were finally defeated and incorporated under Roman rule.  They were subjugated people, who, like slaves and women, and even Jews, bore the brunt of living at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

These scattered Gauls, the Galatians, through Paul, had been presented with good news about one who looked very much like them – one who identified with the lowly, who suffered death under the crushing arm of Rome, who was resurrected to life through Divine power.  Who was alive in the people who honored his story and turned their allegiance toward his Way.

“To the churches of Galatia…” Paul writes.

The law, spoken of so often in this letter, is just as much about Roman law, imperial law, this overarching structure that ordered the relationships and practices within the empire -that pointed people toward the imperial gods, who were to be honored and worshiped because of their conquering and ruling power, which was a social fact.  The only group officially exempt from worshiping the imperial gods was the Jews, who had permission from Caesar to follow their own practices.  Male circumcision being a central sign of being a part of this community.

So these Galatians have converted their allegiance to the Jesus way.  They no longer feign worship of the Roman gods which crushed them.  They pledge allegiance Christ over Caesar. They are in the world, but not of the world, to quote another part of Scripture.

They are putting their lot with the Jesus people, who affirm as Paul writes in this letter, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  All those hierarchies of power and control collapse.  They are no longer.  In Christ their relationships have been re-ordered.  Paul writes, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

But, some of the apostles start teaching the Galatians they should still be circumcised so they can get some official status within the empire.  It’s OK to shift your allegiance to the one true God, but you’re definitely going to want to cover yourself by getting the official exemption as outlined by Caesar.  You must be circumcised.

Paul will have none of it.  He writes: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters…if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.”

This, as you can imagine, is a more radical interpretation of Paul.  It certainly poses important questions about how and where we give our allegiances within this powerful nation whose birthday we celebrate this week.  Mennonites and other Anabaptists originated as a movement of folks who recognized that their commitment to the way of Jesus sometimes put them at odds with the laws of the land.  They suffered for this.  This gets more nuanced in a democracy when we have increased responsibility as citizens and hopefully a bit of influence, for the formation of the laws that govern us.  All the more nuanced if you’re a white, landholding male who has benefited from the way the laws are written and implemented.

Perhaps a modern day parallel with this reading of Galatians challenges us to let go of certain unearned protections, and enter into solidarity with vulnerable and targeted people.

All that to say that freedom comes with responsibilities, which is the direction Paul takes it for the Galatians.

The kind of freedom being talked about here reaches all the way into our interior world.  Like, what we do with our anger.  What we do with conflict.  What we do with our sexuality, which Paul seems to be especially concerned with, perhaps because sexuality is such a powerful force for harm or for healing.

Freedom in the Spirit is so very different than a distorted individualism which does whatever it wants.  The freedom of the individual always takes place within a network of relationships which make us who we are.  If you’ve ever tried to declare freedom from breathing, you recognize pretty quickly.  Just how how tied up our freedom is in relationship.  Sooner or later, we’ve got to come up for air, and we share this air with each other.  My freedom to breathe is dependent on our collective commitment to share and protect this good, clean, God-given air.

But it’s tricky to hold this the tremendous gift of freedom with our tendency to let ourselves get bound up with things that make us less free.

The purpose of freedom, this letter says, is to free us up to love, and love is an inherently relational act.  And an inherently political act.

Freedom in the Spirit has outward signs.  These signs are different than the sign of circumcision.  Paul calls the signs fruits, which I like, because that makes us a tree, and anytime we identify with the trees, we’re onto something good.  When the Spirit of freedom, which is the Spirit of Christ, is having its way, this is what it looks like, going right down Paul’s list:

It looks like love, which is more like the sap the feeds the whole tree.

It looks like joy, which is so rare it takes our breath away when we actually experience it.

It looks like peace.  Peace with ourselves, peace with our neighbors, even waging peace on our enemies.

It is patience, which is our right relationship with time.

It is kindness and generosity none of these things are limited resources.  Generosity

And faithfulness, sticking with our commitments.

And gentleness in a world that often mocks gentleness as weakness.  Gentleness arises from an inner strength that need not control or dominate.  Rome knew nothing of gentleness.  Jesus exuded gentle strength.

And self-control which we’ve already mentioned, because there are so many other things that can gain control of the self besides our truest, deepest self, which is Christ, the source of freedom.

This is the delicious fruit we crave.

This is the freedom which binds us to one another.

This is our declaration of inter-dependence.  This we celebrate and give our lives for.

“The stone the builders rejected” | Pride Sunday | June 16

Texts: Psalm 118:19-24; 1 Peter 2:1-10

It was a little over thirteen years ago that this congregation began a discernment process regarding membership.  Some of you remember this well.  Many of you weren’t here 13 years ago. The question at hand was whether the congregation could openly affirm persons for membership regardless of sexual orientation.  It was a thorough process, lasting about 10 months.  It involved study of scripture and church documents and the science of sexuality, listening to faith stories, especially those of gay folks, meeting in small groups.  It was not a new discussion here, but it did result in a first time official vote to be a publicly welcoming congregation.  That was February 2007 – a coming out moment of sorts for the congregation.

Five years ago, without need for much further processing, the congregation voted to clarify that sexual orientation was a non-factor in the hiring of church staff, and that pastors were affirmed to officiate at weddings of opposite and same sex couples.

Yesterday a number of us rode a hay wagon through downtown Columbus anywhere between zero and five miles per hour, with a whole lot of zero at the beginning.  We passed out 4000 packets of seeds to people lining the streets for annual Pride march. The packets included the words: “sowing seeds of love.”

In the spirit of Pride weekend, I want to invite us to reflect on this journey we are still on as God continues to sow seeds of love among us that grow in surprising ways.  If we have an annual Pride Sunday it would be good to do enough advanced planning to hear more from the voices of queer folks.

For today, you’re stuck with this straight guy.  And so I come to this the only genuine way I can.  As a straight person deeply indebted to the queer people in my life.  As a blind person learning how to see.  As someone whose faith has undergone a major dismantling and new birth from a teenage fundamentalist-ish to whatever I am now.

As a centering text I want to use this odd little line from Psalm 118.  Verse 22.  This is how it goes: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”  It’s short enough we could all say it together.  So repeat after me: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”

It’s a mini-parable.  And like other parables, it draws from images of everyday life.  At least the everyday life of those who first heard it.

We can imagine a group of builders, building, a building.  Builders building a building.  Using the abundant and sturdy material of their day – stones.  The stones are carefully selected to fit just right, one beside the other.  Then, after the foundation is laid, the next row up.  Expert masons may chisel and trim each stone to just the right dimensions.  The building is taking shape as planned, strong and true.  Built to last.  But then the builders come across a stone that just won’t fit.  No matter how they turn it, no matter how they try to chisel it to size, it won’t sit straight on the line.  It won’t break along the right plane.  That’s one queer stone.  The builders have work to do, and there are plenty other stones.  They toss it aside and think nothing of it.  And, as they keep building their building, there it sits.

The stone the builders rejected.

The Psalm in which this appears, 118, is a psalm of thanksgiving.  It was recited after the Passover meal, and likely recited by pilgrims as they made their way to the Jerusalem temple.  What the Psalmist is especially thankful for, is deliverance from one’s enemies.  The Psalm speaks of being surrounded on every side, those surrounding are like bees, ready to sting.  But the Lord takes the side of the one being surrounded, and cuts off their enemies.  Deliverance, salvation, victory.  This was the experience of Israel surrounded by powerful nations.  Passover was a celebration of deliverance from enslavement in Egypt.  It was the experience of individuals facing those who sought to harm them.

It’s important to note that the Psalm is written from the perspective of the stone that had been rejected.  “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”  Verse 22.  Followed by verse 23.  “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

This little parable, tucked away in Psalm 118, becomes one of the most quoted passages from the Hebrew Bible in the New Testament.  One of those times is in 1 Peter, which we read – which identifies the rejected stone as Christ, which has become the cornerstone.  The rejected stone becoming the cornerstone is quoted four other times in the New Testament.

In other words, when those who witnessed the life of Jesus were looking back into their own tradition to try to understand what it was they had experienced…when they were looking for some kind of continuity between what they had inherited, and this burst of Divine presence they had undergone, this was one of the primary handles they found.  They recognized this as what they had witnessed.

The prestigious builders of their time, the Roman Empire, the religious elite, had built a structure that had no place for the way Jesus moved in the world and who he moved with.  And so he was rejected and met a violent end.  But God wasn’t done.  The stone the builders rejected became the cornerstone.  Around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus forms a community committed to his ways, inhabited by his Spirit, loyal to the kingdom which he preached and enacted.  This is the Lord’s doing and it’s marvelous in our eyes.

From where I stand, I see strong parallels with the way queer folks occupy the place of Christ.  Queer people know something about having no place.  About being targeted with violence.

But there’s a translation issue here that impacts the meaning of the Psalm.  The words for cornerstone are technically “head of the corner”.  This has led a few English versions, like the NIV, to translate it as capstone.  Like the head is the top.  It’s not a great translation, but we might see it as one step in the process of how God has worked among us.

The capstone is the top row of stones that line the building.  Or, if you’re building a pyramid, the singular top stone.  Like the builders rejected this stone, and then realized they needed it after all, that it did have a place, that it had an important role to play in their building, and it’s given a prominent location.  The capstone.  The parable becomes about inclusion, which is largely how the church has spoken about its relationship with lgbtq persons.

But the more common translation, and the one I find much more interesting, and true to my own and other’s ongoing experience, is “cornerstone.”  If the stone the builders rejected becomes the cornerstone, then it’s no longer a story of inclusion at all, at least not in the way we’ve imagined it.  This is more along the lines of what Mark named as the Rainbow Christ in the midweek blog.

The cornerstone is the first stone laid of a building, and all other stones are set in relation to that stone.  It sets the course.  It defines the layout.  I have never built a stone building, but I have done a lot of ceramic tile work.  And I can tell you, you better get that first tile right, because every other tile is set it relation to it.

So, in this scenario, if the builders are over here doing their thing, and toss this stone out, God comes along and says, OK, I’m going build my own building, and I’m going to start with this one.  If any of the other stones want to be a part of what God is doing over here, they’ll need to join up with this whole different order of things.

So here the question for straight folks isn’t so much “Are you willing to include within the building those who have been previously excluded?”  The question is rather, “Are you willing to have the structures of your life, your faith, your view of what is sacred..are you willing to have these dismantled in order to be included in what God is building in this world?”

There’s a direction we could take this metaphor that I’m not going to go, at least right now.  It has to do with the actual organizational structure of the church, and the denominations around the country that are splinting and splitting over this “issue.”  Methodists are in the throes of that right now.  Mennonites in our own slower way.  We could look back at the founding documents of Mennonite Church USA in the early 2000’s about how this denomination was literally, in writing, built on the exclusion of queer folks in how we wrote our membership guidelines as a compromise for how we might hold together.  We could see as lamentable, or necessary, the separations that have come out of this.  We could look back at the 1st century and ask if there was another way for those Jewish followers of Jesus to relate to fellow Jews in such a way that didn’t split them off from one another, or if it was a necessary move of the Spirit, with reconciliation and reparation to happen another day.  That’s a discussion for some other time.

Where I want to land this mini-parable/metaphor is on the personal and interpersonal level.  About what happens within us when the structure we thought represented the holy, the good, the Divine, gets challenged.

Because faith, and religion, as it grows within us, develops a kind of structure.  There are foundational beliefs and values we pick up, and on those is built a structure of the sacred.  This building tells us about what is good, what is right, what is natural, how God has ordered this world.  And, very importantly, where we fit into it all – or whether we fit into it.  We internalize this structure, this narrative, and it informs what we think about ourselves and others.  It shapes our attitudes and actions.  It is a source of meaning, and much comfort, because it all fits together, or distress, because it doesn’t.

For most of its history, and still in most places today, there is no room within the Christian sacred structure for different sexualities and gender expressions to be seen as a gift from God.  As being a manifestation of the image of God.

And I don’t assume that we’re all at the same place on this, and this is where I have empathy for folks who struggle with this.  Because it really can challenge the whole structure of faith.  If it doesn’t fit in the sacred structure, in the holy order of things, then there’s much more at stake than just accepting or rejecting this one belief or value.  The whole building is suddenly under threat of being shaken.

To change the metaphor just a bit, but to keep it in the realm of construction, for many forms of religion, understandings about gender, sexuality, maleness, femaleness, and God’s created order, these understandings are a load bearing wall in the house of faith.  Move that wall, and the house collapses.  And that’s a terrifying thought.

This can be a terrifying, or at least confusing, thought experienced by straight and gay folks.

This is why, I may be so bold to say, this is why, lgbtq folks are one of God’s great gifts to this world.  Because we are challenged to confront our sacred structures, and we are challenged to ask what is most important and what really is the foundation, the cornerstone on which all this is built?

In this question there can be a tremendous grace.

Like when my brother came out to our family and we were all gathered in my parent’s living room, having a conversation about where we were at with this.  My brother’s partner said this to us:

“It’s taken me 40 years to accept myself for who I am, and I’ve been thinking about it every day.  So I understand if it takes you a while.”

And so it could be that the more solid and firm that structure, the more dismantling needs to be done, until we’re left with what matters most.  If we allow it to happen, if we let down our defenses, those stones get taken apart, and we come face to face with the Christ among us.

This is not really a story about stones, it’s a story about people.  It’s a story about relationships.  It’s a story about love, which is from God, which manifests itself in this world in ways we can neither anticipate nor control.  And when that becomes what’s most important, amidst the rubble of what we thought held the cosmos together and gave it meaning, then we have something to build on.

I think that’s important enough to say again.  You know this isn’t about stones.  It’s about people, about relationships, about God-given love, which is so much wider and life-affirming than we can imagine.  And when that becomes what’s most important, even if everything else is in disarray, then we have something to build on.

And Spirit comes along as the master builder, and she starts with that as the cornerstone, and the re-building process begins.  Sometimes out of the same elements of the old structure, just in a different place.  Sometimes there’s room for all kinds of new stones, and spacious rooms.

If you are someone for whom the affirmation of lgbtq people has always been normal, with no tensions between that and your faith, then God bless you.  I’m so glad you can’t relate at all with this sermon.

If you’re someone whose life has been turned upside down, whose faith has been dismantled and rebuilt, if you are a queer person who has been pushed to the edge, perhaps near suicide, because you saw no place for yourself in the house the church built, and you’ve found life on the other side, then may your story of grace and courage be told far and wide.

And if you’re someone who just doesn’t quite know where they’re at on all this, then thank you for your willingness to worship here and keep listening and building relationships of love and respect — with a bunch of queer-affirming Mennonites, which, thanks to the haywagon float, more of Columbus now knows is not an oxymoron.

The Psalmist says, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.  This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

God is indeed building something marvelous within us, and among us.  Thanks be to God.

Another Advocate | May 26

Texts:  Zechariah 3:1-5; John 14:15-26

One day, not so long ago, a woman walked into a grocery store.  While there, she slipped one of the items under her jacket and tried to walk out with it.  It was a frozen chicken, so it was hard to hide.  A security guard spotted her, detained her, and called a police officer.  The officer searched her and found the frozen chicken.  He ordered her to accompany him to the police station.

Lots of people saw this happening.  One reacted differently than the others.  Standing in line to check out, he told the cashier he wanted to buy that very chicken the woman was holding.  He then brought the receipt to the officer, who reluctantly agreed to let the woman go.

If this story sounds familiar, you must be a regular reader of the CMC Lamplighter, our monthly newsletter.  Or at least you read the May edition.  This story was told to Phil Hart, who wrote the article, by Yasir Makki.  Yasir lived and studied in Columbus in the late 90’s and early 2000’s before returning to his home in Sudan.  He now leads a school and church network.  We help support this work financially through our church mission budget.  Some others of you give individually.  Yasir was the guy at the check out counter who saw all this unfolding, bought the chicken, and enabled the woman to go free of charges.

It’s an advocate story.  Through his actions, Yasir became an advocate for this woman he’d never met.

The presence of an Advocate shows up in John chapter 14.  This is a continuation of the passage from last week, the new/old commandment – that the friends of Jesus are to love one another.  It’s part of the larger farewell discourse of John 13-17, addressed to this small group of companions who had accompanied Jesus through his ministry.  But now the end is closing in, and Jesus has a lot he needs to say.

Here, in chapter 14, he says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will ask the Father, (Jesus’ intimate name for God), and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever.  This is the spirit of truth.”

Jesus’ promise of an Advocate shows up three more times throughout the farewell discourse, each time referring to what we more commonly call the Holy Spirit.  John’s is the only gospel to use this term for Holy Spirit.  John’s gospel, very likely the last in our scripture to be written, is less emphatic than the others on Jesus’ return to his followers in bodily form, the second coming.  Instead, John emphasizes this Advocate as bearing the name of Jesus, sent by God as a continuation of Jesus’ presence.  The Advocate will “be with you forever’ Jesus says.  It’s the ultimate parting gift that keeps on giving and giving, without end.

An Advocate is someone who is for you.  They’re on your side.  They speak up on your behalf.  They use their power for your good.

Here’s more to the frozen chicken story:  There’s a lot of political unrest in Sudan these days.  We don’t hear much about this in the US news cycle.  Street protests are common, kidnappings have increased.  Prices for food and basic goods have spiked in the past year.  Poor folks are desperate for food.

A couple months before the grocery store incident Yasir had a conversation with a friend, a former police officer.  The officer estimated that 99% of women taken into police custody get raped while there.  Also under Shariah law, theft can be punishable by cutting off a hand.

All these factors were in the mix in the grocery store line, when our friend was in a position to be an Advocate by purchasing a $5 frozen chicken.

Shift now from this present day scene in a distant place to this strange and fascinating scene in the book of the prophet Zechariah.  That story seems to be taking place on some spiritual plane, in a divine courtroom of sorts.  Zechariah sees, in his mind’s eye, Joshua, the high priest, standing before the angel of Yahweh, wearing filthy clothes.  Alongside Joshua and the angel of the Lord there is another character which in Hebrew is Ha-saTAN, the Satan, which means, the accuser, or the adversary.  The adversary is standing at the right hand of Joshua, ready to accuse him in the Divine court.  Joshua and his people have been through quite an ordeal.  Wearing filthy clothes to court, as far as I can tell, rarely increases one’s chances for a good verdict.  The accuser may have a good case here.

But the angel of the Lord gets the first word.  Speaking directly to the Satan,  the angel says, “The Lord rebuke you, O Accuser.”  The angel then commands that Joshua’s filthy clothes be taken off of him and clean ceremonial clothes be put on – a fine new turban for his head and a priestly robe.  The Accuser’s case is not even heard.  He gets outmaneuvered by the angel of Yahweh who becomes an Advocate for Joshua and the people he represents.

The story is similar to the story of Job, where this same spirit, the accuser, goes before God to accuse the righteous man Job of being probably-not-so-righteous since he’s had a pretty easy life and anyone can be thankful to God when things have gone well for them.  The adversary, the Satan, comes against Job to accuse him.

In Zechariah and Job, the NRSV doesn’t translate the Hebrew word for Accuser.  It leaves it in its Hebrew form of the saTAN, Satan.  Whenever the satan gets mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures it is an adversarial spirit that sets itself up against someone or a community.  Like an obsessed prosecutor convinced of the guilt of an adversary, bringing up its case against the defendant.

The Satan is never used as a proper name in the Hebrew Scriptures.  A being named Satan.  That was a later development.  But it is recognized as something real.  There is a certain accusatory and adversarial spirit present in the world that sets itself up against us.  We experience this energy within us, in the incessant conversation we have with ourselves in our head.  And we experience this energy around us coming from all different sources.  The accusatory voice or spirit that is against the well-being of us and our community.  It sets itself up in systems of racism and sexism which are, in the Hebraic sense, the work of the Satan.

In John 14, Jesus speaks of another voice, force, spirit whose presence he is celebrating and whose continuing presence is his representative after he’s gone.  The Advocate, “who will be with you forever.”  “The spirit of truth.”  And while we’re paying attention to original languages it’s worth noting the Greek word for Advocate, paraclete.  It’s a word that had a secular usage at the writing of the New Testament which basically meant “lawyer for the defense.”  The paraclete is the one who defends the one being accused and speaks on their behalf.

Everyone needs a good defense attorney in this world.  A paraclete.

Everyone needs an Advocate and everyone can be an Advocate.  Being an advocate is holy work, Holy Spirit work.  When you are an advocate, you are by the very definition of John 14 doing the work of the Spirit, who is doing the work of Jesus.

If we think about our own stories, I’m guessing we can each think of someone who has advocated for us at some point, and how much of a difference that has made.

There was a rather remarkable example of this last Sunday when the commencement speaker at Morehouse College pledged to pay off the entire student debt load of the graduating class.  Imagine that.  Imagine how that’s going to alter the course of those roughly 400 graduates.  The logistics of this are yet to be worked out, so watch for how this is actually going to work, and the wider discussion of the ongoing crippling effects of student debt.

That’s a headline story, but the grand scale of a gesture like this might distract from the more common ways the Paraclete works.  Jesus also said that the world neither sees nor knows the Advocate.  As if there’s something subtle and entirely un-grand about the way the Paraclete operates in this world.  Something that, in the words of Jesus, simply abides with you, and will be in you.

It makes all the difference to know that someone/something is for you.  Sometimes as a Presence abiding with you.  As the inner voice advocating for you.  Speaking a better word than that accusing adversarial spirit that also inhabits our inner world.  Sometimes the Advocate speaks for us through the voice of another – a mentor, a parent, a teacher, a friend.  Sometimes an advocate finds you wearing filthy clothes and, rather than asking in an accusatory tone, “now how did you get so dirty?”  Rather than that, says, Here, it looks like you could use a fresh robe.

What is remarkable is that even if we fail to be the kind of advocate we’d like to be for others, that the Paraclete abides with us, is still for us.  Even if you don’t know what you believe about Jesus or God, the Advocate believes in you.  And you can take that on a theological or human level.

And if you do have a strong conception of God, part of that conception might be mixed in with God actually playing the role of the Satan, the accuser, the one always looking for faults and shortcomings, pointing the finger, highlighting how you don’t measure up.  If this is your conception of God, the Paraclete is here to offer some good news.  The Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, the continuation of the presence of Jesus among us, is for you.  Is for you.  Is your defense attorney.  Is your Advocate.  Is God among you who has overcome the Satan.

This is the parting gift that keeps giving.  The Advocate will be with you forever.  It’s sometimes hard to see or hear.  But it abides with you and in you and among you.

A new/old commandment

Text: John 13:31-35

The writer of Ecclesiastes famously said, “There is nothing new under the sun.”  And he should know.  He’s been around the sun a time or two.  He’s an old man.  He’s seen a lot of living and a lot of dying.  And, let me tell you youngsters, there’s nothing new under the sun.

Of course, one wonders what his reaction would have been had someone slipped him an i-phone which enabled him to Facetime with his cousin way out in the Judean hill country.  Does the relentless march of technological innovation qualify as something new?  Or, to stick with the perspective of Ecclesiastes, is it ultimately just more mist in the breeze of time?

What is new, at least according to Jesus in John’s gospel, is a commandment he gives his closest companions.  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

To claim love as a new commandment is borderline comical, to the point that one wonders if Jesus is speaking a bit tongue in cheek.  These words are a part of the lengthy farewell discourse, covering John chapter 13 – 17.  The end is approaching, and Jesus has some things he needs to say before he’s out.  He’s with his friends, and he has just washed their feet – their dusty dirty feet, like a servant would do.  He will go on to speak of the coming of the Holy Spirt as an Advocate, to speak of his mystical oneness with God which his companions can also experience.  He urges them to be one.

Just before this “new commandment” Judas has left the room and gone out into the night to speed along the events that lead to Jesus’ death.  Just after this new commandment Jesus tells Peter he will deny him three times.  In between betrayal and denial, Jesus speaks up.  “Hey everyone.  Brilliant idea: Love one another.”  How’s that for a new one?

If not entirely new, it’s at least a different angle on the love commandment as recorded in the other three gospels.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus addresses the question of what is the greatest commandment.  His response is to combine two commandments into one.  To love God with one’s whole being, from Deuteronomy.  And to love one’s neighbor as oneself, from Leviticus.  This is an expansive call for love, especially since in his other teachings Jesus included outsiders among neighbors, like Samaritans.

John remixes this teaching for a different emphasis.  Here the great/new/old commandment is “that you love one another.”  That’s a much smaller circle to exercise love.  Much smaller.  “One another” means the people Jesus is addressing in the moment, a pretty small group.  No need to ponder the theological dimensions of loving God.  No need to venture across the street or around the world to find a neighbor to love.  “Love one another,” as in, look around the room.  These are the people I’m asking you to love.

Sometimes, it’s easier to love the person you’re only going to see once and then move on – It’s easier to love that neighbor than one another. The very people we share life with – that small, intimate circle.

Why is it that “one another” can be one of the most challenging groups to love? Why is it we reserve some of our harshest words and most difficult behavior for the people we need most?

When our oldest girls started kindergarten, one year and then the next, we had a similar experience with both.  When they would come home after a full day at school, there were frequent meltdowns.  Like, just about every evening.  Screaming, fighting, not listening so well to us or each other.  Abbie and I started getting nervous, wondering how much this was happening at school.  Maybe we haven’t prepared them well enough for school.  Maybe our kids won’t be able to go to school.  Maybe they can’t handle it.  Oh my goodness, we must be terrible parents.

So imagine our surprise when we went to the first parent teacher conferences and had the teachers tell us that our children were well-behaved, respectful, good listeners, and got along well with their classmates.  It was Abbie who came up with the theory that still makes a lot of sense to me.  The girls would work so hard during the day to hold it all together, to be good, to follow the rules, and when they got home they needed a place to decompress from all the structure and expectations.  Like, home is the place where it’s OK to fall apart.  It’s safe to not be on your best behavior.

This flipped my view on after-school melt downs.  Yeah.  We’re providing this safe, loving environment where our kids can go out into the world, face those challenges, and then come back and, if they need to, just fall apart.  Oh my goodness, we must be amazing parents.

Because you’re either terrible or amazing in life.  There really is no in between.

In this case, “Love one another” looks pretty rowdy and not so tidy.  It sounds pretty loud.  There’s a lot of patience involved and it helps a whole lot to know what else is going on in that little person’s life for why they’re behaving the way they are.

This is not easy, but If this is what “love one another” looks like, I think we’re going to be OK.

It gets trickier when you replace the adult-child “love one another” with the adult-adult love one another.  Because by now we’re supposed to have this figured out.  No more melt downs.  No more lashing out at those you most love.  We’re all patient with each other and always assume the best when the other person gets out of line.

But we still give most of our energy to holding it together during the day outside the home.  We still need a place to fall apart.  And we tend to feel most safe doing that in the company of those we consider “one another.”  The small circle.  “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus says.  “That you love one another.”

In February I attended the annual Pastors and Leaders event at AMBS, the Mennonite seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.  The speaker was Dr. David Anderson Hooker of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame – A black man speaking to a mostly white audience.  Speaking to us as white people, he asked, “Have you ever been working alongside a person of color for a justice related cause and all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, they get really angry at you, perhaps saying how you just don’t get it, or that you’re not a true ally?”  This had actually just happened to me in relation to our Sanctuary work, so I was all ears.

“How should you respond to this?” Dr Hooker asked us white folks.  “Here’s how you respond,” he said.  You say “Thank you.”  Thank you for trusting me enough to say what’s actually on your mind.  Thank you for not hiding your frustration.  Thank you for showing me what I still have to learn.”

Because it takes a level of trust and one another-ness to even make that a conversation worth beginning.  If we love each other enough to get upset with each and speak our truth, then we are approaching living life as one another.  Because if we don’t need each other to be there for us, there’s no reason to be upset when they aren’t.  But if we do, and they aren’t, it hurts.  Love for one another has a tendency to expose the ways we are falling short of that very love we profess.

This tendency for our one-another, in-the-same-room relationships be to the most difficult and strained is on full display in, of all places, the gospel of John itself.

You don’t have to read too far into John before you start picking up on this recurring reference to “The Jews.”  Chapter 1, regarding John the Baptist: “This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem.”

Chapter 2: “The Jews then said to Jesus, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?’”

Chapter 3: “Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, who came to Jesus by night.”

Even our reading today from chapter 13 includes a reference: “And as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’”

Of course, the disciples and Jesus himself are also Jews.  But John, and the other gospels in their own ways, make specific reference to the Jews as if they were some kind of other group, often in intense conflict with the Jesus movement.

The reason for the intensity of the conflict is precisely because they were all part of the same family, the same household, having an intra-family squabble about how to interpret the tradition and how to move forward.

It would be like me or one of you standing up here are railing against The Mennonites.  Oh, those Mennonites are driving me crazy.  They claim to be all about peace but they can’t even work through their own differences.  They’re hypocrites.  They’re passive-aggressive.  They claim to love the Bible but they just use it as a weapon against people who don’t agree with them.  Oh, those Mennonites.

You get the idea.  If someone were to read that 2000 years later they would get the entirely wrong impression unless they realized this was a “one another” fight.  A group of people who loved each other and needed each other enough to name their frustrations and disappointments.

So we’re stuck with one side of the story in our Christian scriptures, and a legacy of antisemitism and all of the incredible un-Christ-like horrors this has brought about.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

One could argue either way whether or not this is actually a new commandment.  Whether Jesus’ addition of “just as I have loved you,” makes this something new under the sun, or not.  Just like one could argue whether our technological advances are producing newness in this world or whether we’re just concentrating and intensifying human experiences and desires that have been there since the beginning of history.

What might be new, what could produce a new thing, would be if we actually carried out the love command.

Jesus surrounds this speech with his talk of the unity he has with God, and how everything he is and has flows out of that Divine Union.  Love is God’s very nature, and when we participate in that, we participate in the love which makes all things new.

Love is the ultimate spiritual technology which brings together two formerly separate selves, and forms a bond, a union, a point of integrating connection.  And that point is an entirely new thing in this world.  It is the foundation of creativity.  It is the bedrock of becoming.  It is how God renews this world, and it starts, of all places, with one another.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ours is a story… | May 5

Text: John 21:1-14; New Membership Commitment statement

For the first time in a while, I’m just going to talk.  No sketchers, although their work will be here throughout May.  No singers or musicians.  Just a good old fashion monologue.  Spoken words.

What I’d like to talk about is words.  Written words.  Specifically, the words of our new membership commitment statement which we’ll be using and testing this year, printed today on the front of the bulletin.

A lot of thought has gone into these words and phrases.  In the winter we invited input through an online survey and through focus groups.  We looked over our old, long standing membership statement and several from other congregations.  And lesser known statements like our Peace statement and Mission statement.

I don’t know how the percentages break down across the population, but I know there is a group of us that gets pretty excited about language, and other groups not so much.  Especially when it comes to statements like this that are worth very little unless we actually live out the words.  This is a very Mennonite and Anabaptist concept.  “Faith is as faith does” says the bumper sticker with the green peace dove logo.

And, there can be something grace-filled and even mystical about good language. Leonard Cohen sings “there’s a blaze of light in every word” – a very Jewish concept, with light itself originating as a Divine word in the opening scene of Genesis.

We’re not creating a new cosmos here with a new Membership Commitment Statement, but hopefully it can serve something like a light to illuminate the path in front of us.  Maybe even offer a fresh way of seeing this path.

So here’s the challenge:

How to say everything important, concise enough to fit on a half page, with at least a touch of Leonard Cohen-like poetic beauty.

Well, this is the best effort of the four of us on the writing team to gather the varied input into something coherent.  There’ll be time during today’s congregational meeting to discuss this, but what I’d like to do now is wade into the first part of the statement.  Just the first part.  Those seven points of commitment might make for their own worship series at another time.

And just to warm you up to this statement overall, I want to say that our previous membership statement had exactly 300 words, and our new one has exactly 205.  We’ll call that a worthy accomplishment in itself.

So let’s a take a look at what we’ve got:

The Spirit calls us from where we are to walk with Jesus toward a more just, peaceful, and merciful embodiment of God’s love in this world.

This is like the summary of the summary.  It would be a challenge to memorize all 205 words, but maybe we could all handle this first sentence.

The Spirit calls us from where we are to walk with Jesus toward a more just, peaceful, and merciful embodiment of God’s love in this world.

So it all starts with the call of the Spirit.  Which is also to say it doesn’t start with us.  Which is a relief.  So many of our biblical stories start with this call of the Spirit breathing into people’s lives.  To be called by the Spirit puts us in the company of Abram and Sarai who left the early civilization of Ur and went to an unknown place.  Moses at the burning bush, burning with a sense that he must return to his people enslaved in Egypt.  Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah who were too unworthy and too young.  Daniel exiled in Babylon, Esther enthroned in Persia, Mary the not-yet mother of Jesus singing Let it Be, Jesus in the wilderness rejecting the devil’s false path, the Apostle Paul who had to first go blind before he could see.

This is lofty company, and it’s easy to make ‘calling’ out to be something way more sure and clear than we actually experience it.  So here’s what’s next:

The Spirit calls us from where we are.  From where we are.  Like here.  Here is the only place we ever are.  The Spirit comes to us, finds us where we are and breathes into us.  It could be a nudge to bloom where you’re planted.  It could be a nudge to take a walk toward another here.

After Jesus’ death the disciples are back to fishing, a familiar here.  Jesus meets them there, shares a meal, fills them with wonder.  Here is alive with Christ.

There is plenty of journey language in this statement, including walking with Jesus.  This is familiar language for us.  If you’re on a journey you’re headed somewhere.  You’re not there yet, and you might not even know where you’re going.  You might not have all your beliefs completely worked out.  But you’re walking on the journey, and others are walking with you, and Jesus has walked the path ahead of you.

What we aspire to walk toward is a more just, peaceful and merciful embodiment of God’s love in this world.  We’re borrowing some from Micah 6:8 here.  Those words hang on the banner outside the church and on the back of our green t-shirts which you might want to wear to the BREAD Nehemiah Action tomorrow.  Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.  We get the first two here, and then include peace.  The walk humbly part shows up at the bottom of the statement with an acknowledgement that we don’t and won’t always live up to our highest aspirations.  So compassion and forgiveness and walking humbly become essential practices.

A more just, peaceful and merciful embodiment of God’s love in this world.  We are embodied creatures, in all our glory and frailty, and this is all happening in this world.  Jesus taught us to pray that the Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.  It’s not abstract.  It’s real relationships.  It’s the difficult uncertainty of living, enlivened by a grace beyond our own making.

That’s the first sentence.

And then we’re talking about our story.

Back in the 70’s and 80’s some psychologists started picking up on the powerful role stories play in shaping thought and behavior.  We tell ourselves stories about who we are, or we believe the stories others tell us about who we are, then we live out those stories, consciously and unconsciously.  The narrative forms the container, the edges of possibility, and we bounce around within the picture it frames.  We might be living out a story of failure or shame, a story of triumphing against the odds, a story of not belonging, a story of being loved no matter what.

The power of story to shape us is not a 20th century discovery.  This goes deep into our past.  We are storied creatures.  The biblical stories have their own overarching story.  Like the constant reminder to the people of Israel to remember that they were slaves in Egypt, therefore they know what that’s like, and they are to be together in such a way that enables the whole community to be free from oppression.  That’s a story that shapes a people.  Remember…therefore…

So it’s worth all of us asking, What story are we living in?  What story are you living in?

Story shows up as a pretty strong theme here.  The statement gives some suggestions for what kind of story we could be living out collectively.

Ours is a story of those who journeyed by faith, whose questions opened fresh possibilities.

It was intentional to not set faith in polarized relationship with questions.  Journeying by faith and having questions are a harmony, not a dissonance.  This was one of those recurring themes from the congregational input.  So much so, that there might have been an uprising, in all its nonviolent force, were we not to include the positive mention of questions in this statement.  This is also one of the recurring appreciative comments from new members.  “I feel like this is a place where it’s OK to have questions.”  Good.  Bring them all.  As a pastor, I will do my best to have a good question for every answer you have.

Here’s another way of saying it: Ours is a story grounded in scripture, centered on Jesus, re-envisioned by Anabaptists, ever-expanding in our time.

There’s a funneling effect here.  Our story is grounded in scripture.  That’s pretty wide.  Centered on Jesus, which focuses for us the meaning of scripture.  Re-envisioned by Anabaptists.  Which names this relatively small historical window that our piece of the story passes through.  These 16th century Anabaptists were questioners of the status quo.  They were radically committed to living the teachings of Jesus, which included nonviolence and the valuing of each person’s connection to the Divine.  It’s an important and unique part of our spiritual lineage, so we name it here.

There’s a funneling effect from scripture to Jesus to Anabaptists, and then Ours is a story ever-expanding in our time.

This is such a dynamic time for religious understanding.  We’re aware more than ever of different wisdom traditions around the world.  One response to this is draw firmer boundaries around one’s own group, and re-inforce a sense of in group and out group mentality.  Another response, and the one we are stumbling our way through, is to welcome these other stories which can widen our sense of ourselves.

At the largest scale, our best instruments of measurement are consistently telling us that the universe itself is expanding.  So it seems appropriate that our minds and spirits expand with it.  That our relationships keep expanding across borders.  That our understanding of God keep expanding.  Ever-expanding.  It’s a very big story, and we’re a small part of it.

The final mention of our story, and last part of the first part of the statement is that Ours is a story of death and resurrection and all things made new.

In the Christian liturgical calendar, Easter is not merely a day, it’s a season.  We’re in it right now.  Easter is a season for considering that the trajectory of this story we are living goes beyond the rise and fall arc  of birth, growth, maturity, decline, death.  We are a resurrection people.  And the fact that we don’t quite know what that means is part of the meaning of it all.  In the resurrection appearance stories it often takes a little while before the disciples recognize what’s going on.  Mary Magdalene is grieving by the empty tomb and sees a gardener.  Cleopas and his companion are on the road to Emmaus after Jesus’ execution and strike up a conversation with a stranger.  The disciples are out fishing and failing, and someone on the shore calls to them with some advice on how to make a big catch.

Only a little further into the story do they recognize that they are in the midst of resurrection.  That the world as they thought they understood it is actually a small part of reality, contained entirely within a larger reality known as resurrection and all things made new.

There is a tremendous mystery here that often lies just beyond our consciousness.  We get small glimpses of it.  It is happening on the personal level with the death of ego, and this larger sense of God-self that we awaken to.  And it is happening on the corporate level, when new life springs up as if out of nowhere.

There is of course a very practical side to all this, which is named in these seven different commitments, which can be explored another time.  For now, the final line can serve as something like a prayer:

By God’s grace, may we be a sanctuary where we welcome, protect, and challenge one another. 

1,2,3, more…  | Easter | April 21

Text: Luke 24:1-12, John 20:1, Matthew 28:1-2, Mark 16:1-2

 

When I say Christ is Risen, you say Christ is Risen Indeed.

Christ is Risen….Christ is Risen.

How many people does it take to witness resurrection?

How many people does it take to witness resurrection?

It sounds like the set up line of a bad joke.

Like, How many Mennonites does it take to change a light bulb?

We probably shouldn’t go there.  Change can be a sensitive topic.

Back to the first question, which is not a joke.  How many people does it take to witness resurrection?

Our Bibles contain four gospels, and thus four accounts of those first witnesses of resurrection, at the empty tomb, that first Easter morning.  You’d think of all the stories to get the particulars just right, this would be it.  The continuation of the Jesus story hinges on this – that the crucifixion is not the end of the line.  That Jesus most certainly died, and that this same Jesus, in some wonderful and glorious way, has been raised up, and is very much alive in this world.

And it all starts early on that first day of the week, after the Sabbath, when the women go to visit the tomb.  To properly anoint the body.  To honor the life.  To grieve the one they loved who had loved them so dearly.

You’d think a single story of what went down that morning would emerge.  Each gospel writer carefully adhering to those details.

Remarkably, each gospel has a different way of answering that question: How many does it take to witness resurrection?

This is Year C in the lectionary, the year of Luke’s gospel.  So we’ve heard that reading.  Of all the accounts, Luke’s scene at the empty tomb is the most…crowded, shall we say.  He names some of the women who were there, and leaves others unnamed.  They all return together to tell 11 of the male disciples what they had seen and heard.

We’ll get back to Luke’s account.  But let’s step back a bit and work our way there, because each of the gospel writers have their own way of telling this story.

Starting with John.

Voice 1 (standing up, speaking into mic): “John chapter 20, verse 1: Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.”

In John, Mary Magdalene travels to the tomb alone.

Katie comes up to color.

It’s still dark, not exactly the safest time of day for a woman to be traveling alone, especially among the tombs.  But there’s enough light for her to see that the stone had been removed from Jesus’ tomb.  She runs and tells Simon Peter and another disciple, who run together to see for themselves.  They go into the tomb, take a look around.  They return home.

And it’s Mary, again by herself, weeping outside the tomb.  Alone.  The body is gone.  For Mary, this is a profound absence.  In her grief, she turns and sees someone standing by her.  She thinks it’s the gardener.  The one who tends the life of this place where she is.  She was kind of right.  She asks the gardener about the body.  He says “Mary.”  The gardener speaks her name.  The gardener is Jesus.  And Mary suddenly sees this.  A profound absence is replaced with a profound presence, and she holds on to him, and he tells her to go and tell the others.

For John, resurrection is first experienced by Mary Magdalene alone.  How many people does it take to witness resurrection?  One.  Resurrection is so deeply personal, that it must be one.  So personal, that the Christ addresses you, speaks your name, that word that follows you your whole life and contains the whole of who you are – your innocence, you failings, your doubts, your hopes and deepest longing, your story – your name, your humanity.  Like the Creator speaking the world into being.  Let there be light.  And there was light.  “Mary.”  And there was Mary, recreated through the resurrected Christ whose love abides as a profound presence experienced in one’s inescapable solitude.  In her inescapable solitude, Mary meets Jesus.  Mary: One witness of resurrection.

Voice 1, singing:

This is the sound of one voice
One spirit, one voice
The sound of one who makes a choice
This is the sound of one voice
This is the sound of one voice

 

Now for Matthew:

Voice 2 (standing up, speaking into mic): “Matthew chapter 28, verses 1 and 2: After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.  And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angle of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.”

Along with Mary Magdalene, Matthew mentions “the other Mary.”

Shakita comes up to color.

We don’t know much about this other Mary.  Earlier she is named as Mary, the mother of James and Joseph.  It’s probably not Mary the mother Jesus.  So many Marys.  Here she’s not named in reference to her motherhood or her sons.  She’s her own person.  We don’t know much about her, but what’s important now is that she is a second witness to resurrection.

Because of course there must be two.  Multiple times the Torah states that testimony can only be established on the basis of two or three witnesses.  “A single witness shall not suffice,” says Deuteronomy 19:15.

If a tree falls in the forest and there’s only one person to hear it, does it make a sound?  Can we trust such a singular experience?  And so there must be two.

If Jesus rises up from the grave, does it make a sound?  How many people does it take to witness resurrection?  Matthew says two.

And besides these women weren’t going to the grave to witness resurrection.  They were going to grieve.  They were going to anoint the body, as was their custom.  To care for the dead, to honor their friend.  There are times in our grief when we need someone to accompany us.  We cannot walk the road alone.  We need a partner.  We need another Mary.  Someone who shows up, and stays at our side.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the first ones to walk into their grief together are the first to experience resurrection.

Voices 1 and 2, singing:

This is the sound of voices two
The sound of me singing with you
Helping each other to make it through
This is the sound of voices two
This is the sound of voices two

 

And Mark’s gospel:

Voice 3 (standing up, speaking into mic): “Mark chapter 16, verses 1 and 2: When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint Jesus.  And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.”

Mary + Mary + Salome makes three.

Elisa comes up to color.

If you’re thinking at this point that maybe each new writer inserted one more witness to give the story more credibility over time, you can go ahead and drop that theory.  Scholars have reached about as much of a consensus as scholars do that Mark’s gospel was the first of the four to be written.  John’s was last – Matthew somewhere in between.  That means the number of witnesses is actually counting backwards from early to later accounts.  Mark – 3.  Matthew – 2.  John – 1.  Luke is written somewhere in the middle, like Matthew, so it’s not exactly a clean 3-2-1 line, but it’s not 1-2-3.

Mark’s is the oldest gospel account in our Bible, and we’re looking at three witnesses to resurrection.  The Torah does say two or three witnesses, so why not hit the high end?  Three is a good Christian number.  The Trinity, the basis of being and creation and love itself.  Three in One.  The men had their Peter, James, and John, and now we meet Mary, Mary, and Salome, apostles of the new humanity.

Three is sturdy.  Like the legs of a stool.  Put your full weight on it, and it will hold you strong.

Three witnesses to resurrection.  Do you see what I see?  Yes and Yes.

Except that women didn’t count.  Their testimony was considered unreliable in a court of law.

In order to believe in resurrection, we’ll have to start believing the stories of those who haven’t been believed.  The brown, the black, the queer, the women.  The black queer woman.  An intersectional Three in one, blessed trinity, each part a witness.

Voices 1,2, and 3 singing:

This is the sound of voices three
Singing together in harmony
Surrendering to the mystery
This is the sound of voices three
This is the sound of voices three

 

And then, there’s Luke:

Voices 1,2, and 3 (standing up, speaking into mic): “Luke chapter 24, verses 1 and 10: But on the first day of the week, at the early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared…Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them.”

Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them?  How many is the other women?

Adam and Bill come up to color

I guess we’ll let a couple guys come up too.  And we only had five sketchers, but how many witnesses to resurrection is Luke asking us to imagine?

It’s open ended.  It’s a group.  Perhaps a large group.  All gathering around the empty tomb.  All wondering and terrified and electrified and remembering that this is what had been said all along.  That death would not hold the Christ.

Remembering and conversing and congregating and declaring this to be true.  Witnessing to what they knew to be true.  Celebrating as only groups of people can celebrate.  As a collective.  As a body, made of many parts, together forming something entirely new.

How many people does it take to witness resurrection?

How many?

 

Voices 1,2, and 3 and choir standing in place and singing:

This is the sound of all of us
Singing with love and the will to trust
Leave the rest behind it will turn to dust
This is the sound of all of us
This is the sound of all of us

This is the sound of one voice
One people, one voice
A song for every one of us
This is the sound of one voice
This is the sound of one voice

(Not) business as usual | Palm Sunday | April 14

Text: Luke 19:28-48

This is how it works: When the ruler or conquering general comes to town you run out to meet him.  City leaders and citizenry surround the procession.  There are songs and loud acclamations.  You reach the entrance of the city and the pageantry continues through the streets.  You hail the general’s greatness.  You welcome him as god’s own, sent to you.

This is how it worked in the ancient world.

The Greek biographer Plutarch writes this about the entrance of Mark Antony into Ephesus:

When Antony made his entrance into Ephesus, women arrayed like Baccanals (Bacchus the god of wine and revelry), and men and boys like satyrs and Pans (part goat part man), led the way before him, and the city was full of ivy and (decorative wands) and harps and pipes and flutes, the people hailing him as Dionysius Giver of Joy and Beneficent.  For he was such undoubtedly, to some.  Plutarch, Antonius, 24.3-4

Another flourish was for the visiting ruler to enter the local temple and make a sacrifice, claiming his god-ordained authority in that space.

The first century Jewish historian Josephus writes this about Alexander the Great’s entrance into Jerusalem:

Then all the Jews together greeted Alexander with one voice and surrounded him..[then] he gave his hand to the high priest and, with the Jews running beside him, entered the city.  Then he went up to the temple where he sacrificed to God under the direction of the high priest.
Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 11.332-336

That’s how it works.

This is how it goes.  When the Passover approaches, you get ready.  You prepare your house, you prepare your heart, you prepare for a trip.  A pilgrimage to the temple.  You and your whole extended family.  It could take several days, so you pack what you need.  But you can only pack so much.  There’s no need to bring the lamb that will provide the ritual meal.  That would make for quite a trip.

There are plenty of lambs in Jerusalem.  They know you’re coming, know it’s impractical to bring your own.  Shepherds around the city have been raising these lambs since last year for this very purpose.  They’re ready for you.  Just don’t forget your coins.  And don’t worry about having the right currency.  You can exchange it in Jerusalem for the shekels that will get you what you need.

This is how it goes every year.  When you celebrate the Passover.  You remember that you are a free people.  That the Lord delivered you from bondage in Egypt so many years ago, and will deliver you from your current bondage.  You remember that your bond to God cannot be broken, no matter who’s running the show.  But you have to be smart about it.  The Romans are keeping close watch.  They too are ready for the occasion.  It’s all a bit tense.  How would you like to be put on security duty during a festival when the people whose land you’re occupying are celebrating their deliverance from people like you?  From the powers that give you your daily bread, your paycheck?  But everybody has to make a living.  It’s tense.  And, for the most part, everyone stays in line, and gets through the festival, and everyone returns home in peace.

This is the world Jesus lived in.  It’s the world he grew up in.  What he saw year in and year out.  The world into which his mother echoed her poetry: “The Mighty One has shown strength with his arm; has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their heart.  Has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 2:51-52)

Jesus had made this pilgrimage many times.  But this year will be different.  Very different.

We know what he did.

How, when they were getting close to the city, he had two of his friends go ahead of them and fetch the colt.  How they brought it back to him, threw their cloaks over it, a soft saddle.  How he sat on that colt and rode it all the way into the city – with loud shouts of Hosanna, of praises to God, and everyone in the caravan laying out a peasant’s version of the red carpet, the brown tunic.  Tunic upon cloak upon leafy branch upon palm leaf upon more cloaks, spread out, all the way along the path down the mount of olives, and back up into the city.

It was a familiar scene with a twist.  It was street theater.  It was a parade without a permit.  It was prophecy – acting out the words of Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!  Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey.”  (Zech 9:9)

There it is.

And there he goes, the victorious, humble one, on script, up to the temple.  So massive.  Then, off script.  He’s making a scene now, driving out some of the vendors.  Making a proclamation about the temple being a house of prayer.  A house of prayer.  These are borrowed words from the prophet Isaiah.  Then he borrows some other words, this time from Jeremiah: “But you have made it into a den of robbers.”

It’s a Zechariah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Alexander the Great, Mark Antony mash up.  It’s Jesus mashing up the drama of human longing and human folly.

Christians sometimes emphasize that the temple system was rotten to the core and Jesus is exposing it for what it was.  Amy-Jill Levine has another take.  She’s one of a very few Jewish New Testament scholars.  She teaches at Vanderbilt.  She has dedicated her scholarly work to helping people who call themselves Christians better understand the Jewishness of Jesus.

Her point is that there’s nothing morally corrupt about the selling of goods and animals around the temple grounds, the currency exchanges that enabled people to get what they need for the festival.  How else are those pilgrims traveling from so far going to have a lamb for the meal?  This is all very normal.

She suggests that what Jesus is doing is disrupting business as usual.  He’s urging people to wake up, to stop business as usual, even if it seems benign, and pay attention.  She writes, “There are times, we may find, that business as usual is not only inappropriate, it is obscene.  Something has to be done.” Entering the Passion of Jesus, p. 51.

Jesus has had enough of business as usual.

If there’s one thing humans are good at, its adapting to whatever kind of usual we find ourselves in.  We’ve adapted to different climates, different cultural norms.  We adapt so well we get used to going along with business as usual.

This is why we adults have no good answer when, for example, a child first discovers the existence of homelessness.  The child is completely scandalized that there are people without homes.  We try to explain the income gap, mental health, lack of affordable housing, but it doesn’t work.  We have an explanation, but the child refuses, at least for a while, to accept that business as usual means that some people don’t have homes.

But they’ll learn.  They’ll adapt.  Over the years, they’ll come to accept business as usual, just like us.  Unless they don’t.

This week I haven’t been able to stop thinking about our friend Ruben Herrera, who died a week ago.  His funeral was yesterday and we’ll have a time of remembrance for him here this evening at 7.  Ruben didn’t adapt well, and I mean that as the highest compliment.  Ruben organized against business as usual.

I wonder which of Jesus’ disciples was his Ruben.  The one who arranged in advance for the colt to be in the right place at the right time to be picked up and ridden.  The one who brought extra cloaks and palm branches to the march and handed them out so everybody got involved.  The one who led the cheers and got people shouting Hosanna till they started losing their voices.  The one who kept pushing and pushing to the point of sometimes straining relationships even with his closest friends, but was one of the first to show up when one of them needed a listening ear.

The one with the queer eye for the business-as-usual guy, who saw clearly the great gap between that which is and that which could be.

And who loved so deeply it hurt.

Toward the end of the triumphal entry but before Jesus’ entrance into the temple, there is a great pause.  Luke’s is the only gospel to include this.  All the commotion goes quiet, and we’re given a glimpse into the heart of Jesus.  It says: “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had recognized on this day the things that make for peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes.’”

Behind the pageantry, underneath the public demonstration, at the root of all Jesus is doing is the heart of one who loves so deeply it hurts.  We must see this, or we miss everything.  Jesus longs for peace for his people, his beloved city.  He loves.  He longs.  So deeply that he’s willing give up any claim on his own life.  He walks toward that which he loves, that which does not yet know the things that make for peace.

The crucifixion of Jesus becomes the ultimate disruption of business as usual.  If the parables didn’t get your attention, if you missed the parade, or were off getting groceries during the temple demonstration, the cross will get your attention.  The temple curtain tears down the middle, the earth shakes, and humanity is given an image of love plus suffering, forever seared into our consciousness.  And there it is.

This is how it works.  The Christ parades into the world without a permit.  Gathers those for whom business as usual is killing them.  Marches straight into the muddle of our lives. Gazes lovingly at the whole mess.  Pauses.  Finds the silence under the commotion.  Wages peace.  Peace be with you.  Peace be with you.  Peace be with your enemy.  Peace on the Jews.  Peace on the Romans.  Peace on America.  The Christ weeps, cries out, loves.  Disrupts.  Turns over some tables.  Are we paying attention yet?  Renounces the robbers, then invites them over for dinner.  How about now?  Asks for everything, keeps nothing, not even his own life.  Gives it away like bread and wine.  Here, you be my body.  This is for you.

No more business as usual.  Creates a new usual out of the shell of the old.  Sets down the path and invites anyone, anyone, to follow.

Despite reports to the contrary, love’s victory parade marches on.

El desfile de la Victoria del amor marcha adelanta.

Love’s victory parade marches on.